Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Employee Picks Shelf Guest Post - Heather Drain ""

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Employee Picks Shelf Guest Post - Heather Drain

Heather Drain has been writing about fringe film and culture for almost ten years. She currently writes for Dangerous Minds, as well as her own site, Mondo Heather. 
She's also on Twitter here: 

If there is any quick cut way of sussing out how cool a movie, music or bookstore is going to be, it is glancing at their Employee Picks. If the staff has good taste then the odds go up exponentially of their inventory being top notch. A great employee pick will bond you to that store. A bad employee pick, much like hot dog soaked coffee, will ruin you forever. So when I was asked to contribute my own video rental store styled Employees Picks, it was a task I did not take lightly.

Going back to a time when there were still Mom & Pop video stores in even the crummiest, wee town, I tried to channel my own dream store and think about what their picks would be. With that, I thought of an underrated film from key major sections of the store. So, feel your hands clasp around the plastic case of your battered but loved VHS tape and don't forget to purchase a small bag of popcorn that was fresh about seven hours ago, and enjoy the selection!

Comedy: From the man that brought us the USA “Up All Night” staple “A Polish Vampire in Burbank,” Mark Pirro, comes 1987's “Deathrow Gameshow.” The premise alone, where the sleazy game show concept goes a step farther by having their contestants all hail from death row and compete to see if they get to live or end up cutting out live on TV, is near golden. In this age of reality television, it feels even more brilliant now than it did back when it was released.

John McCafferty is pitch perfect as handsome, cheesy but oddly likeable game show host, Chuck Toedan. He should have had a much bigger career, though it looks like he has consistently been working with Mark Pirro, which is nice. The rest of the cast are good, including Robin Blythe as Chuck's antagonist turned love interest, avid feminist Gloria Sternvirgin, cult film actress and trained fire breather Debra Lamb and an actor credited as “Beano.”

Film wise, it's actually one of the best looking films I have seen yet from Pirro. There is some unusually good lighting, especially during Chuck's nightmare sequence and as a whole, the film is well shot. More importantly, though, it's very funny. It might not be the most intellectual type of humor, but if you are a fan of shows like “Married With Children,” then you should love “Deathrow Gameshow.”

Horror: The name Tobe Hooper, for any real horror fan, is a name that is instantly going to conjure up gritty, documentary-style footage of bone furniture, a screaming Marilyn Burns and a lurking, chainsaw  wielding man wearing a mask made out of leather. All of this is perfectly acceptable, but for me, the name Tobe Hooper immediately takes me to a very different film and one that is in dire need of equal respect to the movie that proceeded it. The film in question? 1977's “Eaten Alive.” (Not to be confused with Umberto Lenzi's flesh chomping cannibal film from 1980.)

“Eaten Alive” is lit like a pre-code EC Comic book come to life and has the plot and out-of-control characters to match. Leading the mutant herd is the late, great Neville Brand as Judd, a rangy looking owner of an even rangier looking motel neighboring a swamp in the middle-of-nothing Texas. Judd's got a real hair trigger temper and ends up feeding the bodies of his assorted victims to this super-crocodile residing in his swamp. Brand alone is like a hot headed, heavy breathing, missing-one chromosome force of nature, but the other characters are equally colorful. There's Carolyn Jones as the butch madame of a backwoods bordello and a very young Robert Englund as Buck, one of the creepiest rednecks in horror cinema history. It's one of his sleazier lines that was baited by Tarantino for “Kill Bill Volume 1.” Marilyn Burns also pops up as a harried and bewigged mother.

However, the real scene stealer is the eternally underrated William Finley as Burns' flat out crackers husband, Roy. At one point, he's on all fours barking like a dog, when he's not screaming about putting a cigarette out in his eye. If I had to make a list of things that make me happy in this life, William Finley in “Eaten Alive” would have a nice healthy place on there. Then again, so would “Eaten Alive” as a whole.  

Foreign: In the land of foreign cinema, Werner Herzog is one of the kings. Known both for his fictional and documentary work, one particularly fascinating period of Herzog's are the films he did with the brilliant and infamous actor, Klaus Kinski. Whenever critics write about their collaboration, they typically will cover either “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” or “Fitzcarraldo.” The former is a perfect film while the latter is flawed, but in the middle is “Woyzeck.”

Filmed only a mere week after they wrapped  the remake of F.W. Murnau's “Nosferatu” (also a masterpiece, by the way), “Woyzeck” revolves around Franz Woyzeck (Kinski). Franz is a soldier whose entire existence is weighed down by a life that is too inherently cruel for someone so fragile, both emotionally and mentally. The inevitable breaking straw is his young wife, Marie (Eva Mattes), whom, feeling more and more distant from an increasingly unstable Franz, ends up having an affair with a younger man. It is then that we witness his complete unraveling.

“Woyzeck” is a powerful cinematic dirge about the fragility of our own humanity and there is no one that could play Franz with the amount of sadness and the damaged energy of a man whose candles are burning on both ends, than Klaus Kinski. It was a role that Kinski was reticent to take since he had performed it on stage earlier in his career, stating in his autobiography that it almost killed him then. Thank goodness that he changed his mind, because he is the resolute broken, weeping heart of this film. Once you lay eyes on Kinski, you will never ever forget him. That's true in general but it is especially true in “Woyzeck.”

Adult: One of my absolute favorite filmmakers is one Cecil Howard. If all you think about when the term “adult” comes up are intensely lucky pizza boys and the typical 1-2-3 of the ole in and out, then you have a lot to learn. The perfect starting place is Cecil Howard's masterpiece, 1984's “Firestorm.” It has the usual Howard hallmarks of terrific music, ranging from pop ballads to instrumentals that sound like they are straight out of Martin Rev's library, colorful lighting and a story that weaves in and out of the land mines of the human condition.

“Firestorm” stars the always great Eric Edwards as writer and part-time hustler Ken Cushing. A ghost writing job turns up with the lovely, filthy rich and borderline predatory Magda (Kay Parker.) Between his new gig and rekindling his dysfunctional relationship with his ex Liza (Tina Marie, billed here as Victoria Jackson), he ends up setting off a chain of events that will effect not only the two of them, as well as Magda, her alcoholic husband Lee (John Leslie) and most importantly, their sweet natured, blind daughter Claire (Joanna Storm.)

“Firestorm” is the kind of film that gives you no easy answers, with a universe, much like real life, where ethics can become blurred in times of desperation and  human weakness. None of the characters are complete villains, while there are no total heroes or heroines either. It's an exceptionally smart and unforgettable film with some terrific performances. There is no actor in the world that could have nailed the role of Kenny like Eric Edwards. Anyone else would have been in danger of making such a deeply flawed but not bad hearted character cheesy or unlikable. In Edwards' hands, Kenny's a flesh and blood man with a good core that has been nibbled at by a life of heartbreak and compromised decisions born out of financial desperation. The other actors are good, too, with the magnetic Kay Parker and the late, mesmerizing John Leslie being especially tops. This is a film that owns a corner of my heart forever.

So there you have it! Granted, it's just a small sampling of some of the key genres, but they should all serve you right and get you on the correct cinematic track. Enjoy and don't forget to rewind!

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

I added Deathrow Gameshow to my Murder for Fun or Profit list at Letterboxd.